Unhealthy hair can be a sign of medical and nutritional problems.
About Hair and Health
Unlike skin, which shows signs of a poor diet quickly, hair may take months to demonstrate a nutritional deficiency. An unbalanced diet and underlying medical problems affect overall well-being. Hormonal imbalances, smoking, and sleep can impact hair and health.1 Hair grows about 6 inches per year, so it takes time for dietary changes to show improvement. B vitamins are critical to creating the red blood cells responsible for carrying nutrients and oxygen through the body. Chickpeas, oats, bananas, broccoli, and peanut butter, are some foods that contain B6. B12 can be found in soymilk, trout, and cheese, for example. Greens, Brussel’s sprouts, black-eyed peas, papaya, corn, and several other foods contain folate.2 Salmon and walnuts have omega-3 fatty acids, which are helpful in keeping hair hydrated. Omega-3s are also found in the scalp’s skin. Essential fatty acids are found in some other cold-water fish, as well as walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and avocados. Walnuts also contain vitamin E and biotin, which “protect your cells from DNA damage”. Oysters, whole grain breads, eggs, beef, nuts, and fortified cereals, with zinc, can be helpful in many ways. Zinc deficiency can lead to hair loss and a flaky, dry scalp. Beta carotene, found in sweet potatoes, carrots, mangoes, pumpkin, and apricots, gets turned into vitamin A by the body. This vitamin protects scalp oils, and a deficiency leads to dandruff. Spinach, and other dark, leafy vegetables, contains vitamin C, folate, iron, and beta carotene. These nutrients are important to circulating scalp oils and keeping follicles healthy. Lentils and soybeans are a great source of iron, zinc, biotin, and protein. Blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes, kiwi, and sweet potatoes contain vitamin C, which is helpful in supporting “circulation to the scalp”.3
Lifestyle and Medical Problems
A poor diet and medical conditions can show signs in nails and hair, which are both made of keratin. Stress, diet, and hormonal imbalances can lead to thinning, breakage, scalp flakes, and greasiness.4 Dry, limp hair can also signal hypothyroidism, which slows metabolism. Dandruff that appears in scaly and thick patches may be from the autoimmune disease psoriasis. Losing 100 hairs a day is normal, but if the hair is “markedly thinner or…starts to come out in clumps”, that can be due to stress, hypothyroidism, or a hormonal imbalance, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Antidepressants or birth control pills can trigger hair loss. Lack of protein in the diet affects keratin as well.5 Temporary hair loss could be a result of surgery, illness, accident, or any trauma. Hair grows in phases (shedding, rest, and growth), and stress can “shock the hair cycle…into the shedding phase”. Pregnancy-related hair loss tends to be seen after delivery. Aging may cause hair loss. Overuse of vitamin A (more than 5,000 IU/day), too little vitamin B, and anemia (an iron deficiency), also contribute to hair problems. Anabolic steroids might lead to hair loss in the same ways as PCOS does. Male-pattern baldness occurs due to genes and hormones. Female-pattern hair loss may also be genetic. Alopecia areata, however, is an autoimmune-related hair loss that leads to balding. For baldness, Rogaine may be prescribed, but for alopecia areata, steroid injections may also be needed. Lupus, another autoimmune disease, can cause hair loss and “scarring, meaning the hair will not grow back”. Chemotherapy destroys cells, and that can trigger baldness as well. A mental disorder, trichotillomania, leads patients to compulsively pull out their hair.6
Find out how nails can show underlying health issues.